September 2023 Open Book Group – Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Thank you to Jane for moderating Bewilderment by Richard Powers. Bewilderment was shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize.

Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist who spends his days in academia, trying to solve the Fermi Paradox – why given all the universe’s time and space, there seems to be no one out there. His wife Alyssa, a climate activist, has recently died in a car crash. He and their nine-year-old son Robin are left bereft. Robbie is a kind warm-hearted boy. He spends hours painting elaborate pictures of endangered animals, deeply concerned about the future of the planet. He is unusual. When he is bullied by his peers at school he reacts by smashing his thermos into his protagonist’s face. Doctors diagnose him with various neurological disorders. Theo hopes to keep him off psychedelic drugs. He learns of a new experimental neurofeedback treatment to bolster Robin’s emotional control. They both embrace the opportunity. Robin retrains his brain successfully on the recorded patterns of his mother’s brain. However, in the modern era of social media, Theo and Robin find that success can bring fame but good fortune is much more elusive.

16 OBGers gathered to discuss the Bewildered. Initially, that is how many members felt as Powers covered a range of ideas through multiple plot lines. We noted that it had been written during the isolation of the COVID years as Powers watched the disintegration of families, the environment, and political, social, and economic systems. We appreciated references to Buddhist philosophy and Hollywood movies. Movies as diverse as Star Wars, The Terminator and The Matrix through to Johnny English, and The Truman Show. As we persevered, it was clear Powers was asking why humanity was destroying themselves and the planet. Why do we pretend we are not? Everyone knows what’s happening. But we all look away.

There was some beautiful writing, particularly about nature. Powers demonstrated its restorative qualities when humans engaged with it directly as Theo and Robin had in the opening chapters. At the same time, some members found parts of the writing overblown.

Members had mixed reactions to the two main characters. Many felt the bond between Theo and Robin was movingly expressed. Theo sought valiantly to parent hIs challenging child. He had no external support. Others did not warm to Theo. They felt he was lacking in emotion about the death of his wife. One member ventured there were hints that Theo was partly responsible for his wife’s car crash. He had acted in retaliation to a suspected affair with his academic colleague.

The descriptions of the pretend planets, Theo wove for Robin as bedtime stories, were an effective vehicle for describing what our planet may look like in the future. For example, a transhumanist agenda was fulfilled on Similis. Many felt that there were too many planets and found themselves skipping over some of the descriptions.

Robin participates in the Decoded Neurofeedback experiment tracing his brain with his mothers. One member described it as a form of meditation. When Robin entered into a meditative state his ADHD was soothed. Another member thought Powers was exploring whether the mind has a form of existence beyond the matter it comprises. Robin can access his mother’s memories making her feel alive again to him. Research into the workings of the brain has rapidly increased in recent years with the implementation of AI. One member referenced Karl Friston, a leading neuroscientist. A link to a YouTube interview is found below. At 32.31 minutes he considers progress in brain-computer interface. Powers imagination takes us several steps forward.

Bewilderment belongs to the science fiction genre. One member commented that Margaret Atwood prefers the term speculative fiction. Bewilderment is well suited to this description. Powers set the novel in a dystopian future where a Trump-like President is engaging in a coup.

Several members had had experience with children with ADHD. While Theo did not want to medicate Robin, our experience had been that medication had helped the children to focus in school. This widened their opportunities. Would it have helped Robin’s mental health and prevented his tragic end?

Bewilderment proved a valid book group choice. Most of us would not have read it without the discipline of our monthly meetings. We were glad we had.

Karl Friston interview


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